Putting on a free show at the Fringe: the highs and lows
From PBH to Laughing Horse Free Festival, everything you need to know about free shows at the Fringe
This article is from 2015.
If you're based in Edinburgh during August, you'll know that it's basically impossible to avoid using the F Word. It is prompted by pushy flyerers, passing tourists and is muttered late at night in beer gardens all over the city: yes, 'Fringe' truly is the word on everybody's lips. But, as I found out when attempting to include my own show in this year's programme, there's another loaded F Bomb that crops up when talking about the festival: 'Free' (plus a third I dare not mention).
Back in January, I set about researching the free festival, only to find that it wasn't a single festival strand at all. In fact, there are two prominent organisations working within the non-pay-to-play model: the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival, which have different policies, work with different venues and are run in different ways. After some research, I filled in the application form for the latter, and the rest was history.
Except it wasn't. I waited every day for news on my show, be it a confirmation or a rejection. For three months I emailed, called and tweeted, but, as they say, a watched inbox never boils over with provisional show offers. Months passed, and by the time April rolled around, bringing with it the deadline to register for the Fringe programme, I had received a handful of group emails about applying for alternative venues, while my outbox contained a lot of unanswered requests.
Just when I had given up hope, that same afternoon something exciting happened: I got an email offering me a slot at a newly available venue. The problem was, by agreeing to perform, I would also be agreeing to pay the £393.60 fee to appear in the Fringe programme, and with the 5pm same-day deadline looming, I was left with approximately three hours and 23 minutes to find the money. Though we knew about the fee from the beginning, without a previous solid show offer, we had no funds and no time to raise them. Suddenly the Free Festival wasn't feeling so free. I sent what was to be my final email on the matter: turning my dream slot down. In case you were wondering, that was when I used the third F Word.
As it happens, my show (Scour, Clouds & Soil, until 29 Aug, 2.15pm – free, shameless self promotion) eventually found a happy home as part of the PBH Free Fringe, where Fringe Society programme entry is not compulsory. But this testing application process was a learning curve, and highlighted some interesting aspects of the free strands, both in terms of organisation and creative decision making.
If I was frustrated with the delay in hearing back, it is perhaps because the Free Fringe and the Free Festival are just as carefully curated as the rest of the Fringe, despite the popular myth that just about anybody can fill a slot in the lineup. As you can imagine, careful programming takes time.
Comedian Janey Godley, who has actively taken her show from paid venues to free ones, says on the matter: 'It's not that the Free Festival is open to one man and his dog with no show … you just can't turn up being Betty the Fucking Bottlewasher then suddenly go "I've got a show I'll put it on at the Free Fringe" because nobody cares and nobody checks the quality. That's not true. There's great quality control within the Free Festival, there's just more artistic leeway.'
It's that artistic leeway which inspires artists such as Janey to choose the free route, or even to supplement their paid shows with free performances, as comedy troupe Clever Peter did last year. They say they do so because it's a 'great platform to perform, which feels free, open and inclusive for all'.
In fact, it's the notion of collective accessibility for performers and audiences alike that prompted Peter Buckley Hill to found the Free Fringe in 1996. His primary motivation, he says, was 'so that artists had a choice, which was not a pay-to-play choice. So that people with something to say could pass the scrutiny, and if they did, come to Edinburgh and lose less money.' His second was to connect more closely with the citizens of Edinburgh, and by offering free shows for all across the city, many residents would argue that this mission is somewhat accomplished.
For Laughing Horse's Alex Petty meanwhile, two of the greatest strengths of the Free Festival are its 'accessibility of the arts to audiences' and its 'creative freedom'. It has also, it could be argued, changed the very face of the festival. As he says: 'We have, along with other free show promoters, changed a lot about the Fringe. Indeed, the density of free shows has become a major selling point for the Fringe itself.'
My experience taught me to look more closely at the word free, for every organisation has different costs. That being said, it did buy me an insight into the complex inner workings of the festival, and as it turns out, that was a pretty good deal.
FREE FRINGE FACTS:
About the PBH Free Fringe
● The Free Fringe was established in 1996 by comedian Peter Buckley Hill with a single show - his own. Last year, the PBH programme featured 440 shows and 7800 performances, so to say the festival has grown would be an understatement.
● Every year, the organisation publishes the Wee Blue Book - a detailed programme which lists performance details for Free Fringe shows throughout August. It is distributed by performers as part of the organisation's community-centric ethos: to help each other out. Nobody gets paid, including Peter: PBH is run on a volunteer basis.
● In this spirit, performers are asked to help out in anyway they can, be it assisting with front of house duties for a show in the same venue, or by offering up skills such as graphic design.
● There is no fee for participating in the festival, and Fringe Society programme entry is not mandatory. Performers may make a voluntary contribution to the Free Fringe if they wish.
About the Laughing Horse Free Festival
● The Free Festival was set up in 2004 by Laughing Horse comedy promoters Alex Petty and Kevin McCarron. Eleven years on, the Free Festival works with 19 venues made up of over 30 performance spaces, and has grown in scale significantly.
● When agreeing to perform with the Free Festival, performers also agree to pay an advertising and equipment contribution, which is £80 for runs of two nights or longer and £40 for single performance shows. Performers also agree to pay to be part of the Fringe programme, of which the costs are determined by the Fringe Society. In 2015, this was £393.60, with a discount available for early entry.